Picture this: It’s the end of an intense day, you’re spent, and all you want to do is collapse into bed, only to get up before the sun and do it all again. Can you relate? This type of scenario is commonly referred to as “burning the candle at both ends” and I think you’ll agree it’s not enjoyable.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the original meaning of that idiom referenced the actual burning of a candle from both ends. Seems logical. It was coined in the days when candles were highly useful and it was considered unsustainable and wasteful to burn a candle at both ends. This is because the candle could only be burned from both ends if it was horizontal, which meant that in addition to the candle being used twice as fast by burning the wick from both sides, the horizontal position of the candle caused the wax to drip at a higher rate and therefore used the candle up in even less time. Not to mention the increased likelihood of a fire. What this phrase really means is the only results of this act are waste and danger.
Somehow we have tweaked this expression into silent praise and almost a badge of honor because of our apparent selfless giving of time, energy, and resources. Here’s a fact: burning anything from both ends is unsustainable and actually quite selfish. A candle lasts the longest by being used as it is intended: flame only at one end, standing upright, situated in a secure structure, and blown out when it is not needed so the wax can harden to give longer viability to the candle. Similarly, successful leadership requires a secure foundation of personal relationships, structural support, and permission to schedule time for recovery.
A candle gives four practical tips for authentic leaders to limit unsustainable waste:
Protect the foundation of your candle representing family and close relationships - never burn from this end
Do an inventory of your support structure - ensure you are in a secure location
Do self-awareness checks to ensure you are upright - if your resources are dwindling too quickly it could be that you’re starting to move horizontal and wax is dripping unnecessarily
Identify and protect “blow out” times of recovery to allow your wax to harden (restore energy) in preparation for another productive burn session